This article was published on March 28, 2011

Why Google shouldn’t launch a social network

Why Google shouldn’t launch a social network
Stefan Meeuws
Story by

Stefan Meeuws

Stefan Meeuws is a IT journalist from Nijmegen (NL) and works as an online producer and editor for ZB Communicatie & Media. He has a pe Stefan Meeuws is a IT journalist from Nijmegen (NL) and works as an online producer and editor for ZB Communicatie & Media. He has a personal website and spends too much time on social networks like Twitter .

Earlier this month, fresh rumours about Google’s social network, now apparently called Circles, appeared  online. It’s supposed to launch next May, but to be honest, I hope it won’t. Because while it does make sense for Google to try to conquer each and every bit of the web, I don’t feel like an additional social network is a particularly useful addition to my Google account, not one I’m waiting for at least.

Both Facebook and Google are companies with a clear function. Facebook is a social experience, Google isn’t. I use Facebook to post my photos and status updates and share things with the world. Google is probably somehow involved in everything else I do online, from various ways of search to e-mail to online documents and almost everything else.

True, Facebook does have a private features like Messages, and Google has (the failed) Buzz and (the acquired) YouTube and Blogger, relatively social features. But in essence: Facebook is a social experience and Google isn’t. The exception could be YouTube, but even though that is now a Google Product, it’s still seen as a separate entity by many. Indeed, owned by Google, but not as closely related to Google as Gmail, for example. Google is used for managing the (relatively) private parts of your lives, Facebook for the social parts. And both companies are pretty good at that and should build on their strengths to get even bigger.

But what happens when Google launches a full-blown social network? Suddenly we’re all supposed to use these accounts we’ve used for private emails, private conversations and private documents for public things. There’ll be people who don’t care about this; they’ll try Circles and maybe they’ll even like it, but Google won’t have an easy time convincing the masses.

Look at Google Buzz: people were uncomfortable with it on day one, and a lot of Gmail users don’t use it – at all. What people do love about Google is the way Google makes new content accessible (like with Google Scholar and the Google Art Project) and adds structure to the information on the web. That’s what Google is good at and why people use Google products. Not because they’re social, but because they’re pretty good.

That doesn’t mean that I think that Google can’t be social, at all. But people aren’t going to want to share the search terms they’ve just used or buzz the fact that they’ve just sent their boss an email. If Google Circles or Google Me, is a full-blown, mostly traditional social network, it’s just not gonna work.

I’m all for thinking outside the box and if Google can find a way to make people feel comfortable about using their Google account for their open, social needs, then and only then does Google Circles or Google Me stand a chance. Google’s social thing needs to be a truly revolutionary product – and not just that, it needs to embrace Google’s values as perceived by the public.

For the same reason I wonder whether Facebook Messages will ever be the big revolution Facebook wants it to be. A lot of users like having chat messages and private messages on Facebook gathered in one place, but most of them will also be pretty happy that they still have a regular mailbox for e-mail correspondence of importance.

I’m convinced that adding private features to a social service is easier than the other way around. I wouldn’t mind adding some money to my Facebook-account, but I don’t think I’ll ever add social features to my bank account or join a Paypal-based social network (can you imagine: “meet and share with your paypals!”). It just doesn’t feel right. The same – although less extreme – goes for most Google products: for a lot of people it just doesn’t feel right to go from Gmail to Circles. And as long as I’m not the only one who feels that way, Google doesn’t need to just change their products, but the way their consumers think about them. I can’t even begin to imagine how revolutionary Google Circles has to be, for Google to achieve that with just one new product.

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